Cornerback Vontez Duff has had his starting position locked up since last year. Duff has become a leader in the secondary and we asked him how the defensive backs performed in the scrimmage. "It was good," said Duff about the scrimmage. "There is a lot of cooperation in the team. We are getting closer to game week. There was good execution and we were working on our technique."
The secondary will have to replace both Shane Walton and Gerome Sapp and Duff thinks they have plenty of talent to take over. "We are doing real good--the one's have the tools, the two's look as though they could be one's and that is what we need as a defense."
Duff got a taste in this scrimmage of what he should probably expect this year. Being the best corner, not many teams will throw his way. "I didn't get the ball my way too much but the other guys were battling. J. Beck (Jason Beckstrom) was out there battling, I saw him make a few pass break ups. The secondary is looking great and the offense is executing on a much higher level now."
Beckstrom appears to be in line for the starting corner position opposite of Duff. Beckstrom has been limited with a leg injury but Duff says he's been battling the injury and playing well. I don't know if he's back to 100 percent right now but he looks close to it. He was out there and looked 100 percent, he was making plays. He looked good."
Beckstrom is being challenged by junior Dwight Ellick. Duff is excited to see the competition because Ellick is another player the secondary can call upon. "That gives us a lot of depth--just having Dwight step in there. They are battling for that spot. You can't really say who has that spot--I guess Coach has to make that decision next week."
The Irish defense should have an improved pass rush this year—something Duff thinks will help his secondary a tremendous amount. "Yes, it's one of those things where it's bad on offense but it's hard for us to get a look sometimes," said Duff of the improving pass rush. "The quarterbacks are getting rushed so quickly they are not able to throw the ball so it gives us a false look. It's good for our defense though, if they are making all the sacks, they are not throwing the ball and that's better for our defense."
One of the major concerns for the secondary will be stopping the run. Losing Sapp and Walton will hurt because both were excellent against the run. Duff does not see this as a concern. "We still have Glen Earl and he's a headhunter so he's definitely going to come up and make some hits. Beck (Jason Beckstrom) and Dwight (Ellick), we've seen they can make hits too. Like today, Beck made a great hit on the receiver. You lose two guys but two guys step up and fill the shoes."
Duff is primed to battle Julius Jones for bragging rights on the all-time kick return leaders list. Duff is only 740 yards away from breaking Tim Brown's all-time record of 2,089 yards for total kick return yardage—Jones is only 233 yards away from breaking the record. "Right now, Julius and I want to make sure our names are etched in stone up there with the top guys. That's one thing we really want to do, especially as it's our last season, make sure our names are up there with top notch guys--the "Rocket" Ismail's and Tim Brown's."
The record is important to him but it was not something he thought about when he first arrived at Notre Dame. "I really didn't think about that. When you first get here you just want to get out on the field and play no matter what you do, kicking the ball, intercepting the ball, running the ball, you just want to do something. You don't really think about it but now that you are in it and have a grasp on it, it's in the back of your mind but you don't think too much about it. You just go out and perform to your best ability."
The defense played with desire and passion in 2003. Duff said that same passion is being shown on the practice field every day. "It's there," said Duff about the fire. "Right now guys are more hungry. They are ready to hit on their teammates so they are ready to hit somebody else. We won a lot of games under Coach Willingham and we are ready to win more than we did last year."
We asked Duff about losing. How does he handle a loss and what will he say as a leader if this team does lose a game? "It's not hard--you have to take it as a man. You can't sit back and cry about it and think about it, that game is over. You'll never see that game again so why not take the next opportunity to go out and perform better than you did last time."
Is Vontez Duff looking forward to playing any one specific team? "I'm looking forward to playing everybody, no matter who is on the plate or who the team is. We have some new teams this year that I haven't played before and I'm looking forward to playing everybody, I'm sure the whole team is."